Editor’s note: Dr. Jack Mooney, journalist, veteran, educator and one-time Community Voices columnist for the Press, died Monday. This reprinted column of his from Nov. 19, 2006, is a tribute to him and an example of his skill and passion.
The film, directed by David R. Ellis, and starring Samuel L. Jackson, is the story of what happens on board a flight over the Pacific Ocean, when an assassin, bent on killing a passenger who’s a witness in protective custody, lets loose a crate full of deadly snakes. Well, what happens, you can imagine, is all heck breaks loose.
Apparently this campy horror flick, hit by critics, but appreciated by its thrilled audience, has done well at the box office; not breaking any records, but paying the light bill.
I like a good thriller as much as the next person, but my aversion to Ellis’ creation is that the subject is too close to reality for me, or at least my imagination.
It was my privilege to serve my country in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era. I was an instrument repairman stationed with the 1607th Air Transport Wing at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. And I worked on what was then several of the largest aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory; the C-133 Cargomaster and C-124 Globemaster. These aircraft carried the military’s largest and heaviest equipment until they were replaced by larger aircraft such as the C-141 Starlifter and the C-5A Galaxy.
Both aircraft were built by the Douglas Corp., and the C-133s could carry 200 passengers, fly at a top speed of 359 mph and had a range of 3,975 miles. The C-124s also could carry 200 passengers, cruise at 230 mph, although it had a maximum speed of 300 mph, and had a range of 2,175 miles.
Both the Cargomasters and Globemasters made long trips to the Philippines and Vietnam, refueling along the way. Not only were those flight crews good, but they had stamina to fly that distance on “Old Shakey,” as the Globemaster sometimes was called. On occasion, when an aircraft returned from Vietnam, one could see bullet holes in the fuselage. And every now and then, it would be reported that an aircraft had brought back unwelcome stowaways in the cargo bay — snakes.
One summer evening I was working the 3rd shift. My partner, Heiner, and I had been dropped off on the flight line by our crew chief to work on a newly returned C-124. As we checked with the guys we were relieving, one of them told Heiner, “You know, they say there is a snake on this bird.” At the chow hall that night, we had heard that there was an aircraft with a snake, or snakes, aboard, but we didn’t know it might be this one.
“Don’t worry about it,” our crew chief said as the day shift guys climbed into the van. “It’s not this aircraft.”
“Well, when we came on this afternoon,” the day crew guy continued, “one of the loadmasters said he saw something crawling in the rear bay area.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the sergeant said, and drove off.
It can be dark on the flight line. The aircraft may be lit by service lamps inside and outside powered by the portable generator, but still it is a dark part of the air field.
We had several maintenance checks to perform that night. Heiner had to troubleshoot some instruments in the flight deck area, and I was to check out the four Pratt & Whitney engines. These are massive reciprocating engines that could generate 3,800 hp each.
To get to the rear of each engine, I had to crawl through the center of the wing, with my only illumination from my flashlight. I dropped down behind the left inboard engine with my flashlight and toolbag, and put on my headset to talk to Heiner. The first thing he said was, “See any snakes, out there?”
In the dim light, I searched for wires and oil pressure hoses, and hooked up testing instruments. But self-preservation instincts were starting to get in my way. Was that a coiled hose, or could that be a snake? In the dim light, shadows played tricks with my mind.
Finishing the left inboard engine, I crawled on to the left outboard, with still less space to maneuver. The hoses and wires were hidden in deeper and darker pockets, and more difficult to see and work with. I heard a noise and thought I saw something move. I called Heiner on the intercom. What do you think I should do, I asked. “Probably nothing,” Heiner said.
After close to four hours of this, I was ready for the service van to pick us up for our 3 a.m. meal. Back at the chow hall, the word was around that we were working on the “snake plane.” “See any snakes?” one of the cooks asked as he poured chip beef over my toast and eggs.
After chow, and back on the C-124, I started my check on the right inboard engine. I heard more noises, like something sliding across metal.
I became more cautious before I grabbed a hose or wire to hook up to the testing unit. My legs cramped and my back began to hurt from the positions I was having to hold.
My fingers became clammy and I dropped a small wrench down behind the engine. I had to reach down a small, dark opening to reach it.
As the sun came up over the Delaware Bay, I was ready for the shift to be over and the van to pick us up.
When Heiner and I returned to the shop to check out, our supervisor told us that the snake had been found ... but on another C-124. “I told you not to worry about it,” the crew chief said.
Back at the chow hall for breakfast, a cook poured chip beef over my toast and eggs and asked, “Did you hear about the snake on the plane?”